Zapatista Referendum Boosted Popular Struggle in Mexico


MEXICO CITY-On April 7, hundreds of state police, headed by Chiapas state officials, stormed the offices of the San Andres Sacamch’en autonomous county government.

This county seat became famous as the site of the negotiations between the federal government and the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN).

This operation provoked a determined mobilization by thousands of Tzotzil and Tzeltal Indian Zapatistas. They expelled the police and recovered their county seat on the following day.

This government’s attack was decisively defeated. Quite notably, the state police withdrew without resistance.

If we contrast this incident with the violent offensive that the state and federal governments waged against the autonomous county governments last year (see “Autonomous Indian Movement Wins Oaxaca Election” in the February 1999 Socialist Action), the question that immediately arises is, what has changed?

A large part of the answer is the success of the National Referendum for Recognizing Indian Rights and Ending the War of Extermination. This referendum was called by the EZLN and organized by tens of thousands of people who support the Indian rebellion.

In March, thousands of Zapatista fighters and supporters traveled from Chiapas to all the states of Mexico to promote the referendum. People were called upon to express their opinion about the bill proposed in 1995 by a joint congressional committee, based on the agreements reached between the Zapatista and governmental representatives in San Andres.

The referendum also had other questions, most notably regarding withdrawal of the government troops now stationed in the area of conflict in Chiapas.

The Mexican government challenged the legitimacy of the referendum. In an attempt to obstruct popular participation, the secretary of the interior, Francisco Labastida, said that the questions were “rigged.”

And the TV news, which are heavily influenced by the government, minimized the importance of the Zapatista initiative or outright dismissed it.

Almost 3 million voted

However, the referendum was held on March 21. Almost 3 million people wrote their answers on ballots and dropped them into 15,000 ballot boxes distributed throughout Mexico.

Obviously, this indicated a failure of the government’s consistent policy of trying to get the Mexican people to think that the Chiapas conflict has faded.

Tens of thousands of activists throughout the country found ways to organize themselves to receive the Zapatista delegates and to set up voting booths.

The prestigious Rosenblueth Foundation, which took the responsibility of monitoring the results, declared that it had counted 3 million votes. By way of comparison, the Harris polling company, which was hostile to the referendum, estimated that 1.4 million people participated.

Over and above the figures, the referendum was a form of popular mobilization that converged with hard fought local and national struggles in recent months.

On March 18, for example, the Zapatista delegates participated in a demonstration of hundreds of thousands of people in Mexico City in which the electrical workers protested against plans for privatizing their industry and the students protested tuition increases.

Another very important result of the referendum was that the Zapatista delegates had contact not only with very broad movements but directly with hundreds of thousands of people. The masses who participated also felt inspired.

An article in the daily La Jornada cited the case of Clementina Sanchez, a resident of a traditional lower-class neighborhood in Mexico City. She said that she was “disillusioned by the wretched internal elections in the Partido de la Revolucion Democratica [PRD].”

The party itself had to void this vote after glaring fraud and tired cliquist practices came into the public eye.

In contrast to this, Ms. Sanchez said that the Zapatista referendum had inspired her because “when the government is so corrupt, all you can do is keep on fighting it, because every day things get worse in Mexico.”

“We campesinos understand each other”

The referendum was very successful in the predominantly Indian regions of the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Mexico, and Veracruz. For example, in Mazatlan Villa de Flores in Oaxaca, the head of the county council, Raymundo Rosas, reported that 4000 people participated in the referendum. The total population of the county is 18,000.

A person in the mountains of Guanajuato gave an eloquent explanation of the impression the Zapatista delegates created when they came to promote the referendum:

“We campesinos [peasants] understand each other quickly. This man and woman are like us, just a little more red-complexioned.”

Obviously from now on, the Zapatista fighters will have direct links and bridges with an enormous quantity of persons and organizations.

The state of Guanajuato is an interesting case. It has traditionally been considered conservative. Moreover, the media there waged a furious campaign against the referendum.

Even so, according to the figures of the State Coordinating Committee for the Referendum, 214 voting stations were set up in 23 out of the 46 counties that make up the state, and 47,565 Guanajuatenses voted in them.

Another interesting aspect was the strong participation of Mexicans resident in other countries, especially in the United States. In Los Angeles alone, 26 voting booths were set up.

In California’s San Joaquin valley, the Frente Indigena Oaxaqueño Binacional counted more than 7500 votes.

People participated also in Illinois, Alaska, Texas, New York, Arizona, Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and many other states.

To sum it up, we can say that the Indian rebellion in Mexico has begun to gather the fruits of an alliance with the workers, women, youth, and other natural allies in the countryside and the cities.

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